For 28 years, the city of Fort Worth has held a celebration for municipal employees and the public honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite early resistance — some people complained that it would cost taxpayers money if employees took off an hour or two during the day for a program — the event was approved, and it always has been held at City Hall in the council chambers.
The program, which is put together by an employee committee, traditionally features music, dance, poetry and a keynote speaker, some of whom have offered up fiery rhetoric, but most were generally accepted by the community.
The chosen speaker for the 29th celebration, set for noon Jan. 17, proved to be too controversial, not for anything he has said, but because of things he allegedly did in the past.
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The Rev. Sherman Clifton Gee Allen lost a lawsuit in 2007 as pastor of Shiloh Institutional Church of God in Christ and was ordered to pay a $50,000 judgment over an employee’s claim of sexual assault. While no criminal charge was filed, Allen was suspended by his national church authority, subsequently resigned and established a new church.
In 1983, a sexual assault charge against Allen was dismissed when the accuser declined to cooperate with prosecutors.
Although Allen has moved on and established another church, some city employees, at least one council member and a former councilwoman had serious concerns about his participation in the City Hall program.
Shortly after the Star-Telegram posted a story about the controversy on its website Tuesday night, Allen issued an email statement declining the invitation to speak because “some may view my presence negatively in what should be a most inspiring, positive event.”
It was the proper action for the pastor to take, quickly putting a halt to what was building as a major distraction from the celebration.
This incident also should serve as a lesson for future committees that plan this special observance of the King holiday.
It’s not that they need to shy away from provocative speakers or those who may have had problems in their past.
But organizers must consider how the prospective audience will receive the message presented by their selection.
For now, the committee, participants and audience should turn their focus to the theme of this year’s celebration: “Keeping the Dream Alive … Embrace the Power of His Vision.”